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Sunday, 22 August 2021

HANNAH'S WHARF - Book review

Connie Monk’s fourth book Hannah’s Wharf was published in 1987; she has published at least 35 novels.

 

It’s the mid-1800s. Thirteen-year-old Hannah Ruddick is left an orphan and is sent to Deremouth in Devon to live with Aunt Louise, a cantankerous old woman who does not seem fond of children and can only get about with the aid of two walking sticks. Unlike Hannah’s father, who barely scraped a living by writing poetry, her widowed aunt was rich, owning a large house, the Hall, and the Netherton Shipping Company.

Hannah is taken to her aunt by the gardener Harold Thurlston, who lives in the gatehouse. Harold has two daughters, Kath and Beatrice, both of whom she befriends, which helps her assuage the inevitable loneliness in unfamiliar surroundings.

Aunt Louise is a fine creation who the reader and of course Hannah come to like and then even love.

Then Hannah meets Daniel Lowden, the godson of Louise, and an attraction is formed, though there is a disparity in their ages and they therefore treat each other simply as friends. Daniel is the master of a ship that puts in to the Netherton quay from time to time for loading and unloading.

In her wanderings, Hannah walks to the quayside and encounters Mr Alan Webster, Aunt Louise’s company manager. Webster has a wayward son, Tommy, who doesn’t show an interest in taking his father’s job. He is a handsome fellow and knows it.

As time passes, Hannah convinces her aunt that she would be more gainfully employed helping Mr Webster in the office. And so it proves; she is a natural, learning the ropes both literal and metaphorical. Author Connie Monk divulges enough about shipping, ship construction and the vagaries of the sea and sailors to satisfy most readers.

This is a well-described period piece with engaging characters and enough plot to keep you turning the pages. Here you will find heartbreak, deceit, and tragedy as well as uplifting moments.

The relationships between Hannah, Louise, Daniel, Alan, Tommy, Kath and Beatrice become complicated so that not much runs smoothly for Hannah, yet she remains constant and determined throughout.

A worthwhile read, with memorable characters.

Friday, 20 August 2021

JADE TIGER - Book review

Craig Thomas’s espionage thriller Jade Tiger was published in 1982 and subsequently reprinted at least thirteen times; my edition is dated 2000. (I’m gradually catching up on my backlog of ‘to-be-read’ books!) He was a very popular author in the 1980s and 1990s.


His debut novel Rat Trap was successful, but it pales by comparison with this outing. By this book, Thomas has improved in style and in conveying tension and suspense and characterisation.

The story begins with a Chinese officer from the Ministry of Public Tranquillity plotting operation Jade Tiger with an unnamed American.

Then a Chinese officer, Colonel Wei, ‘walks in’ to British Intelligence in Hong Kong. British SIS veteran Kenneth Aubrey is tasked with interrogating the man, for the Colonel apparently possesses potentially destabilising information about a high-placed German politician, Zimmerman. In 1940, when he was a wet-behind-the-ears spy Aubrey knew Zimmerman. He’d captured him but it was during the BEF retreat to Dunkirk. There developed a grudging companionship as they evaded strafing Messerschmitts and bombs. The war-time flashbacks are very effective.

Apparently, during a cultural visit to China Zimmerman was drugged while visiting Wuhan and then interrogated by the Chinese, who learned of his allegiance to the KGB and the USSR. (Wuhan is not sinister in this tale, however!)

Aubrey is ageing now; he has featured in 10 or 11 books; he appeared in three or four before this one. He is accompanied by Australian Patrick Hyde as his bodyguard. In Hong Kong they meet up with the CIA representative Buckholtz who is keen to take Wei off their hands.

Aubrey is the old school. He owes his life to Zimmerman so he needs to confirm that Wei is telling the truth about Zimmerman being a mole for the Soviets. At risk is the Berlin Treaty, the reunification of Germany, the pulling down of the Berlin Wall (in 1982).

The investigation also involves a Chinese-American CIA agent, Liu, who is inserted into Shanghai to verify Wei’s revelations. These are the days before China had embraced the ubiquitous facial recognition cameras. Liu’s attempts to obtain proof and avoid detection are well told and suitably tense and realistic.

Aubrey and Hyde follow a trail to Australia where an old associate of Zimmerman still lives. Again, the details and descriptions are first rate.

Throughout, Aubrey, Hyde and Buckholtz are shadowed and even on occasion attacked by Hyde’s nemesis, the Soviet Petrunin. Hyde and Petrunin have had previous encounters; the fact that I haven’t read these did not spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Like The Day of the Jackal, we’re aware that there’s a failure at the heart of the story; for we know that the Treaty must fail since the fall of the Wall did not occur until 1989. But that doesn’t matter; we want to know what happens to the individuals concerned, which is a measure of a good writer.

Sadly, in 2011 Craig Thomas died of pneumonia, aged 68, having also suffered from leukaemia.

Monday, 9 August 2021

Writing - self-editing

There are many tasks a writer must perform when self-editing. At the later stages, when the book is as good as finished – that is it’s ready for a final read-through – one task is to check for word repetition.

No writer can avoid this happening; at certain times in the writing process, certain words cling on, sometimes in the subconscious, and are used too often. Each writer will have their own words and phrases which they tend to fall back upon without even noticing. At the time of writing there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s good to maintain the writing flow rather than be concerned with word-repetition.

After having written well over 2 million published words, I’m aware of some words that I tend to opt for too frequently, hence the list below.

In my years of editing other people’s work I find that the most repeated words for many an author are: smiled, laughed, nodded, saw, pointed, suddenly, and shrugged. One of the biggest mistyped is ‘though’ for ‘through’ and vice versa, which a spell-checker won’t detect.

Bearing in mind that this word-repetition check was against my current book of about 105,000 words, there are not too many word repetitions anyway; mainly because I’ve become familiar with most, so consciously avoid ‘laughed’ and ‘sighed’, for example, while not interfering with the flow.

I recommend you conduct a search for certain words. You might be surprised at the number of highlighted words you discover on the same page and often close together!

My search turned up these shown below.

Once you’ve found the word, scroll through the text, examining each highlighted example, seeing if the word is actually necessary at all, or maybe a different word might suffice and be an improvement. Try to reduce the frequency of the word where several are shown in close proximity; it’s not unusual for the same word to appear four or more times in a single paragraph!

This process sometimes reveals inconsistencies and logic errors in the text, which is all to the good. 

Certain words are not always necessary – the biggest culprits being ‘down’ as in ‘sat down’ and ‘up’ in ‘stood up’; there are similar variants.

 Repeated words template – August 2021

Repeated word

Before

After edit

Repeated word

Before

After edit

smiled

32

16

shook

37

28

nodded

84

32

appeared

47

39

laughed

14

11

peered

21

15

grinned

13

11

abruptly

13

11

sighed

14

12

shrugged

22

16

looked

55

38

eyed

20

17

moment

32

19

instant

22

20

glanced

25

21

gazed

6

6

few

68

44

some

23

22

down

103

67

up

180

116

out

103

67

back

80

66

just

51

34

askance

2

2

called

36

31

glimpsed

14

12

saw

36

35

gestured

23

20

walked

29

26

sensed

26

21

ran

43

32

believed

20

17

pointed

27

23

strode

17

15

suddenly

11

10

away

73

52

seemed

91

49

off

85

62

felt

69

58

noticed

44

40

thought

50

41

though

91

59

stepped

53

35

turned

80

51

You will see on the list that some variants are shown close together: for example, moment and instant; few and some; gazed and glanced; down and up. So beware of substituting one repetitive word with another on the list; yes, it can be done, but adjust the total so you know where you are.

Good luck.

Sunday, 8 August 2021

No Witnesses - Book review

Ridley Pearson’s 1994 thriller No Witnesses doesn’t disappoint. I’ve yet to encounter one of his books that doesn’t deliver.

Homicide detective sergeant Lou Boldt is approached by an old associate, the police department’s forensic psychologist, Daphne Matthews. Her boyfriend Owen Adler is a multi-millionaire in the food supply business. Adler has been receiving threatening faxes full of hate. He has been told not to go to the police. So Daphne wants Boldt to investigate clandestinely.

The threats turn out to be real and deadly, starting with a supermarket tin of soup at one of the Adler supermarkets; one victims dies from poisoning, the other is seriously ill.

So begins a cat-and-mouse case, where the clues are small and frustrating; but fortunately Boldt is meticulous and no small detail is overlooked.

Several aspects of this police procedural set it above many of its contemporaries, the humanity, the detail, the pace and the insider knowledge. 

Boldt is businesslike but humane, despite the lowlifes he has to contend with:

‘Any homicide cop felt the pain and suffering of the victims and their relatives – no matter how callous to the crime scenes he or she became, no matter how quick the one-liners, and how easy it was to move on to another case. The tragedy of the Crowley family had deeply affected everyone…’ (p338).

And then there’s the suspense. Pearson has the enviable knack of ratcheting up the tension in more than one encounter. You’re there, you can feel the threat, the anxiety. Daphne, Adler and his daughter are in jeopardy; and Boldt is convinced there’s somebody in the department aiding the deranged blackmailer.

There’s humour, inevitably, some of it dark. One instance: They want to track down the withdrawals of the ransom money – it’s being done via the city’s ATMs, a few thousand dollars at a time. The bank boss, Lucille confronts a technician, Ted Perch, asking for his help. ‘… Perch looked a little hurt. She knew more than he did, and he did not like that. And if he tried to look up her skirt one more time, Boldt was going to say something about it…’ Later, after technical talk with Boldt, ‘Lucille recrossed her legs and Perch didn’t even notice. That was when Boldt knew he had him.’ (p160) Had Perch hooked, in fact.

It’s  a little out-dated now, due to the advances of technology, but that doesn’t spoil the tale at all. You’re there, in 1994, sweating it out with other cops in Seattle.

Oh, and there’s a neat twist near the satisfying end, too.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Widowland - Book review


C.J. Carey’s debut novel Widowland joins the lengthy ranks of alternate history books, in this case re-imagining where Britain signed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940. The story takes place in 1953, in the weeks running up to the coronation of Edward VIII and his queen Wallis. Since the Alliance, in effect all power actually resides in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.

In this new world, women are allocated specific castes. ‘When all the boxes were ticked, the women were assigned the classification… This label would determine every aspect of their life, from where they should live, to what clothes they would wear, what entertainment they could enjoy and how many calories they could consume.’ (p20)

The elite women were popularly called Gelis; Klaras were fertile women who had produced four or more children; Lenis were professional women, such as office workers. Paulas were carers, teachers and nurses; Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees, while Gretls did domestic work. Tight at the bottom came Friedas – essentially cemetery women – ‘widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children,  no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man.’ (p20)

Rose Ransom is among the elite, a Geli, working at the Ministry of Culture, rewriting classics of English literature to correct the views expressed in these old novels. ‘They had an office for everything and there was no reason why literature should no be processed and cultivated and bureaucratized as much as steel or cardboard or coal.’ (p141)

Inevitably, reading the forbidden texts in order to prune them has its effect: ‘she found she could not get the writers’ voices out of her head.’ (p206) – which is why despots always desire to control writing in their world.

As she’s an expert in these old tomes, she is called upon to investigate outbreaks of insurgency: graffiti has been daubed on public buildings in the form of extracts from forbidden works, notably words by female novelists. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slum in Oxford where childless women over fifty have been banished. Rose is tasked with rooting out the source of this rebellion before the Leader, Hitler, arrives in England for the Coronation.

Some quotations are from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, others from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Jane Austen.

Carey has captured the flavour of the early 1950s as well as the machinations of the Third Reich with many telling details. She also imbues the story with wit and humour as well as menace and suspense. She has an easy but often haunting style, too: ‘A hawthorn in full bloom had scattered its blossom like blown snow across her path and its musty odour evoked a sudden evanescent transport of memory…’ (p158)

‘Short of being German, Helena had been gifted with all the blessings the gods could bestow, chief among them a sense of the ridiculous – a vital attribute in Government service.’ (p16)

‘Alfred Rosenberg was sixty, but looked a decade more. With his sickly complexion, perpetual scowl and deep-set dark eyes, the Protector was more mortician than politician.’ (p34)

Hymns were still sung in community centres, though the words had been changed: ‘The Magda in her kitchen/ The Gretl at the grate/The Leader made them lowly/And ordered their estate.’ (p154)

A German policeman Bruno Schumacher is wonderfully described: ‘… he had a five o’clock shadow that looked like it had no regard for punctuality.’ (p171)

To compound Rose’s situation, she is conducting an illicit affair with Martin, a powerful Nazi commander, which adds suspense to the brew.

In many ways this novel offers a few chilling insights into the ongoing culture wars and the cancellation mentality, among them digs at the purveyors of the Woke religion: ‘Don’t presume to speculate on other cultures. “Cultural Misappropriation” it was called…’ (p195)  In addition it seems likely that the repercussions of Covid-19 and subsequent Lockdowns and Government rulings inspired aspects of the novel: ‘Self-censorship was always more effective than any other kind. Why police people when you can scare them into policing themselves?’ (p315)

The subjugation of women depicted here has faint echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Attwood, 1985), but without the religious overtones. Some other alternate history books are Bring the Jubilee (Moore, 1955), The Man in the High Castle (Dick, 1962), Pavane (Roberts, 1968), Dominion (Sansom, 2012), A Piece of Resistance (Egleton, 1970), Collaborator (Davies, 2003), Fatherland (Harris, 1992), When the Kissing had to Stop (Fitzgibbon, 1960), SSGB (Deighton, 1978), The Leader (Walters, 2003) and Romanitas (McDougall, 2005). Widowland is a welcome addition to an impressive list.

C.J. Carey is the pen-name of novelist Jane Thynne; she is the widow of author Philip Kerr. This is her first novel using this pseudonym.

***

Editorial comment:

I thought the cover was garish; however, the author liked it immensely, so who am I to judge?

‘If that’s not nerve-wracking enough’. (p17) Wrack is seaweed. It should be ‘nerve-racking’. Nerves on the rack, in effect.

Friday, 9 July 2021

The Alienist - book review

Caleb Carr’s debut thriller The Alienist was published in 1994; it has only recently been released as a series on Netflix.

The title derives from the fact that before 1900 people suffering from mental illness were believed to be ‘alienated’ from society and even their true nature. Experts who studied these individuals were known as alienists.

The tale takes place in 1896 in New York. John Schuyler Moore is the narrator. He’s a journalist. He’s also a good friend of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an eminent physician and alienist. One night they are both called out by the Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt: there has been a gruesome murder of a boy prostitute, which is not the first, apparently. As Roosevelt is at his wits’ end he reluctantly calls upon Kreizler and Moore to undertake a private investigation. They recruit the formidable Sara, Roosevelt’s secretary, to assist.

At over 500 pages, this is not a page-turning thriller. But it is nevertheless engrossing, not least because Carr has inhabited not only the persona of Moore and the time-period but also the great city itself. To reinforce credibility, he has populated the story with real people as well as fictional. Religious, political and criminal characters leap from the page – and can be found in the prizewinning tome Gotham – A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace (pub.1999).

As they attempt to formulate the psychological profile of the serial killer who persists in murdering boy’s and depriving their corpses of their eyes, the investigative team are repeatedly baulked by criminal elements and even the city’s Protestant and Catholic archbishops.

The gradual unravelling of the culprit’s past is compelling and fascinating.

As the brief outline above attests, the book is not for the squeamish. Sadly, whatever atrocity a fiction writer might write about, in the annals of crime the truth is often by far worse.

An accomplished first novel. Others have followed.